Government & Politics

First Democratic presidential debate features plenty of highs and lows

Democratic presidential candidates (from left) Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee debated Tuesday in Las Vegas.
Democratic presidential candidates (from left) Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee debated Tuesday in Las Vegas. TNS

The Democratic presidential debate was expected to be something of a snoozer, largely because the candidates were expected to agree on most issues.

Instead, the debate was often heated — largely because the candidates disagreed on a number of issues, including gun control, wars in the Middle East, national security and civil rights, even economic policy.

Here are some highlights and lowlights for the candidates:

Hillary Clinton, best moment: “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.” The response seemed aimed at a general election audience — undecided voters may be less partisan than base voters in either party and may like a promise of actually accomplishing something in Washington.

The answer was based on a question about Clinton’s changing views on several issues. Flip-flopping is a favorite complaint of reporters and political junkies, but most voters assume all politicians change their minds from time to time.

The Democratic base is concerned about her fondness for changing positions, though, and many of those voters are turning their attention to Bernie Sanders. Republicans will also make flip-flopping a major issue if she’s the nominee.

Worst moment: Stumbled slightly explaining her occasional defense of banking firms during her time as a U.S. senator from New York. Also said, “I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone.” Republicans are already preparing that clip for a TV ad attacking her political opportunism.

Most of the attention in this campaign has focused on Clinton’s service as secretary of state. Her voting record in the Senate may soon become a bigger issue.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, best: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” he said, defending Clinton. He then turned neatly to the main theme of his campaign, a critique of wealth accumulation at the top of American society.

He got the warmest response of the night.

He hammered Wall Street, corporate media, drug companies and others. “Fraud is a business model,” he said.

Worst: Tried to draw a distinction between guns in rural areas and in other parts of the country. That won’t play well with Democrats or Republicans — gun control is a tough issue to straddle.

Jim Webb, best: Referred to his military experience in Vietnam and his defense service as a civilian, arguing he is the most qualified candidate to be commander in chief. Also declined to criticize Sanders’ record as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam era, although he later said, “Bernie, I don’t think the revolution’s going to come.”

Worst: Appeared to stumble when mentioning his family during the opening remarks. Also rattled sabers at China, making him seem the most militarily aggressive of the candidates. Most Democrats tend to be more isolationist.

He also complained far too much about the time he got from the moderators. There’s no crying in baseball, or presidential debates.

Martin O’Malley, best: Showed passion when arguing for more gun legislation and succeeded in pushing Sanders to the right on the issue. Called Donald Trump a “carnival barker,” which will get some attention from, one guesses, Donald Trump.

O’Malley effectively suggested Clinton is too well known to provide “new leadership.”

Worst: Referred to “Assad’s invasion of Syria.” A minor gaffe: Bashar al-Assad is the president of Syria.

Lincoln Chafee, best: Did not seem to have a standout moment.

Worst: Tried to defend an early Senate vote by saying he had just arrived in Congress, implying he didn’t know what the vote was about. Hardly a recommendation for the presidency.

Also, he said, “I’m a block of granite” on the issues. Chafee was a Republican for years, a fact unlikely to endear him to Democratic primary voters.

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc

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